Music

How ‘The Documentary’ Set The Tone For The Game’s Impressive, Controversial Career

Rapper Game called his apparent final album Born 2 Rap. Such an audacious title may have raised eyebrows, but the conception of his debut album The Documentary affirms him. The L.A. rhymer overcame a near-fatal shooting, industry setbacks, and creative limitations to release the last offering of Dr. Dre’s classic formula: unrelenting menace over pristine production. Those who believe in destiny may believe that Game’s rap career was simply meant to happen.

The 18-track album is revered in part because of the reflective “Dreams” and the work he and 50 Cent did on “How We Do” and “Hate It Or Love It.” But the hit-laden project set a troubling precedent for his career. Just months after The Documentary’s release, he fell out with 50 Cent and the rest of G-Unit, a red-hot label that Interscope Records placed him with out of convenience. Continuous clouds of conflict and unsettling dealings with women mar a stellar discography that officially starts with The Documentary, which made him the West Coast’s brightest star for an entire era.

Last year, he told Complex’s Everyday Struggle that he ranked himself as the best West Coast rapper of all-time on the merit of “being a lyrical muthaf*cka for as long as I’ve been.” No matter what skeptics or detractors think of him, it’s hard to deny his raw lyrical ability. Even frenemies like Joe Budden and 50 Cent laud his lyricism. His bars are what made him an in-demand rap prospect in 2002 on the heels of his You Know What It Is Vol. 1 mixtape with brother Big Fase. The tape was a major career pivot after being shot five times as a drug dealer in 2001, an incident he explored throughout The Documentary.

You Know What It Is Vol. 1 caught the ear of Diddy, who almost signed him to Bad Boy, and Dr. Dre, who ended up signing him to Aftermath in 2003. His skills were undeniable, but as Game noted on The Documentary’s “Runnin,” “Dre told me ‘ain’t no comin’ back from Gold.’” As the endless wait for Detox demonstrates, Dr. Dre is a perfectionist. As the creative force behind landmark acts like NWA, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and 50 Cent, he has a reason to be.

Dre’s vision for stardom is so resolute that he didn’t even compromise it with Rakim, many people’s GOAT rapper. Bars alone weren’t going to get you an Aftermath release, as over 22 artists realized. Game freestyles from 2003 (and his 2004 Get Low Recordz release The Untold Story) showcase a gritty artist who had hip-hop heads ready to run through a brick wall but didn’t yet have the songwriting ability to get Middle America to walk to the record store.

While he was refining his sound, 50 Cent was already excelling with Get Rich Or Die Tryin, a multi-platinum album that quintessentially exemplified gangsta rap in a melodic, charismatic package. 50 Cent was signed to both Aftermath and Eminem’s Shady records. Interscope soon realized that it was beneficial for Game to join 50’s G-Unit Records to hone his songwriting skills. Game signed to 50 Cent, then recorded nine songs for The Documentary in 50’s Connecticut mansion.

The album gradually developed from that point, though details differ depending on who tells the story. Game has said 50 only wrote two hooks. 50 says that he wrote “Hate It Or Love It”, “How We Do”, “Church For Thugs”, “Special”, “Higher”, and “Westside Story.” The truth may be somewhere in the middle. While Game never reached the commercial heights of “How We Do” or “Hate It Or Love It” in subsequent releases, his bars have always been impressive — and arguably improved — over the years.

He’s undoubtedly telling his story on tracks like “Dreams,” “Start From Scratch,” “Need Your Love,” and “Like Father, Like Son.” And while a slew of features including 50, Eminem, Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige, and Marsha Ambrosius helped bolster The Documentary’s universal appeal, the album was his vision. As he rapped on “Dreams,” he “studied all the classics, start revisin’ my strategy.” He has said that he was listening to projects like Ready To Die and Reasonable Doubt while recovering from his shooting.

That crash course of the rap canon is why The Documentary mythologizes the debut album. The album is an offering to the rap gods, who he mentions on almost every song. His longing to be a “rap legend” and join predecessors like Tupac and Biggie in hip-hop annals is a predominant theme of his songwriting.

His recuperative studies influenced the fusion of Ready To Die’s meta aspirations of “ashy to classy” rap stardom, Reasonable Doubt’s underworld memoir, and Get Rich Or Die Tryin’s reliance on mammoth hits — with the help of 50 Cent. The ambitious album could have easily crumbled under the weight of such ambition. But Game’s technical lyricism and compelling storytelling ability took advantage of production from giants like Dre, Kanye West (“Dreams”), Timbaland (“Put You On The Game”), Just Blaze (“Church For Thugs”), Havoc (“Don’t Need Your Love”), and Scott Storch (“Westside Story” and “Start From Scratch”). There are uptempo moments like “Higher,” and “Put You On The Game,” and subdued confessionals like “Dreams” and “Like Father Like Son.”

Jay-Z reportedly heard “Hate It Or Love It” on a yacht and told Dr. Dre it was “a smash.” He was right. The song helped spur the album to 586,000 units sold in its first week. It went quadruple platinum within two months. He was nominated for two Grammys. It was a star-making moment that cemented him as the West Coast’s biggest contemporary rapper. But unfortunately, he couldn’t celebrate his victory lap.

Game caught flack from hip-hop’s fans for frequent namedropping on the project, but his love for hip-hop is admirable when viewed outside of an egotistical lens. 50 Cent once said (perhaps jokingly) that he didn’t like celebrating rappers who weren’t dead, because he may find himself in beef with them. On the other hand, Game has no problem showing love to any artist he enjoys. That philosophical difference was part of their undoing. 50 Cent ended up booting Game from G-Unit in early 2005 because Game refused to diss Jadakiss and Fat Joe along with the rest of G-Unit. 50 felt like anyone who sided with his mortal enemy Ja Rule, as Jada and Joe did on 2005’s “New York,” was his enemy. But Game had prior relationships with both artists and didn’t want to ruin them with disses. That decision led to Game being viewed as the same kind of enemy to 50.

The two were soon involved in a shooting at New York’s Hot 97 studios that Game discussed on Talib Kweli’s People’s Party podcast. The bloodshed meant there was no turning back. They engaged in a war of diss songs that included attempted intervention from Al Sharpton and allegedly even Michael Jackson. Getting kicked out of a massively popular group may have been a death knell for most artists, but Game stayed relevant in part through his quarrels with 50 Cent and G-Unit — along with good music.

On “Dreams,” he contended “the war to be a rap legend has just begun.” It’s telling that he used the term “war,” because it seems like conflict has been a bedrock of his career. He was a hero to some when he was taking it to G-Unit on Stop Snitchin, Stop Lyin and dropping disses like “300 Bars,” but by the time he dissed Meek Mill in 2016 in what seemed like a ploy to hype his 1992 album, fans were simply drained. There was repeated beef with artists like Jay-Z, Lil Durk, the entire 2014 XXL freshman class, Meek, 40 Glocc and Young Thug, and headline-grabbing exploits like rapping about having sex with Kim Kardashian-West, the wife of his onetime(?) friend Kanye. It seemed like Game couldn’t simply let his strong catalog speak for him. A 2017 lawsuit judgment for sexually assaulting a woman on his VH1 game show further alienated him from fans.

The latter half of his career has been disheartening for some of his longtime supporters, including me, but there will always be The Documentary. On the title track, he rhymed, “I take all the credit for puttin’ the West back on the map.” After developing his songwriting prowess into a winning formula, he deserves that nod, along with the slew of talented artists and producers who assisted him on the landmark album.

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